The case for grey literature
Grey (or gray) literature has been growing in importance for decades and will continue to do so. It has certainly grown in volume as governments, think tanks, charities, and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have expanded their publishing programmes.
It’s also progressed qualitatively, thanks to developments in information science, supported by services such as GreyNet and OpenSigle. Grey literature undoubtedly presents challenges to librarians and archivists. The print products often don’t lend themselves to shelving – they may lack a proper spine (using, for example, stapling or ring binding instead) and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes (loose-leaf, leaflets, pamphlets, booklets, etc.).
Both in print and digital form, grey literature is difficult to define or categorise. The University of British Columbia library provides a helpful characterisation and GreyNet provides a list of document types. Though neither of these are entirely satisfactory – there is a tension between categorising literature by genre and defining it by provenance; the place of self-publishing is unclear; and the list is arguably incomplete (what about slides or teaching resources?) – it is perhaps in the nature of the grey literature that no such attempts will ever prove entirely adequate.
Yet, for all the difficulties, information science has, as I say, made progress – with the result that grey literature has become somewhat more readily retrievable. This extends the ‘shelf-life’ of grey literature – whereas grey literature used to disappear rather quickly, into piles on desks and then into filing cabinets or waste-paper bins, it now hangs around much longer, especially online. (Logically this should lead to increasing citation rates, though I don’t know of any statistics to support that.)
Why do I say that the importance of grey literature will continue to grow? In part, because it harmonises with developments in publishing, notably the growth of open access (especially within repositories).
In part too because governments have become more interested in the impact that the research they sponsor makes beyond the research community itself (notably, in the UK, in the Research Excellence Framework – see its Assessment Framework and Guidance for Submissions). Publishers of grey literature are often strong at getting publications ‘out there’ and into the hands of influencers, such as policy-makers and the media.
And also because researchers are under pressure to publish and grey literature is well placed to play a central role in what we might call the ecology of research communication. What I mean by that is that (a) grey literature is itself a form of publication – reasonably established and respected within research communities – and (b) grey publications often form stepping-stones towards other more polished or developed forms of publishing: a report or white paper, say, may in due course metamorphose into a book or act as a quarry for research papers. Thus a researcher can use grey literature projects as a stage on, as it were, an authorial conveyor belt.
As an editor, I love exploring grey literature. I see it as a seed-bed of creative projects. Whenever I give training courses for researchers – on how to write for publication and how to get published – I seek to convey enthusiasm for grey lit. But it’s hard work. One obstacle is that the term itself is not known very broadly – it’s much used in some disciplines (archaeology, for example, or health sciences), but hardly at all in others (especially arts and humanities): indeed it’s not at all unusual to find researchers who have written grey literature without knowing it.
Another obstacle is that the term ‘grey literature’ isn’t inspiring – it’s difficult to sell anything grey (except suits). Perhaps there should be a competition to come up with a sexier phrase. Meanwhile, if you have a suggestion, do please share it …
PS The best suggestion to date (26 Nov) is ‘silver literature’, which I like.